Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Leader of The House of Commons


  1.  The Government recognise the importance of Parliamentary Questions as a vital tool of scrutiny for all Members of the House of Commons. The Government believe that good scrutiny makes for good Government and attach the highest importance to the duty of Ministers and civil servants to provide full and accurate information to Parliament. That principle is embodied in the Parliamentary Resolution adopted by both Houses in 1997 and in the Ministerial Code.

  2.  The Government are committed to upholding the right of Members to use questions to seek information or press for action as they see fit, within the rules of the House. The cost of administering parliamentary questions since Session 1997 is estimated at over £31million[1].

  3.  The ability of Members to question Ministers about anything within their departmental responsibilities is extremely important. Not only do they ensure Members are informed, they also keep Ministers in touch with the whole range of the work of their department.

  4.  However, the effectiveness of the system relies on its proper use, and the Government believe that in both Parliament and Government the handling of PQs could be improved. This memorandum suggests several changes to the way in which Government deals with PQs and identifies areas of parliamentary procedure where the Procedure Committee's inquiries might be valuable.

  5.  The Government believe that any changes should aim to bring a greater clarity to the system, promoting a better understanding of the purpose and limitations of the system amongst MPs and Government departments. We therefore welcome the Procedure Committee's inquiry as a timely opportunity to address some of these issues and look forward to the results of the Committee's investigation.


  6.  The tabling of questions remains an effective and well-used route for gaining information from the Executive:
SessionQuestions tabled

  7.  The number of questions tabled each year illustrates their importance to Members. However, the Government note the marked increase in the average number of questions tabled per sitting day so far for this Session compared to previous Sessions:

SessionQuestions tabled
No. of sitting Days
Avg. No. questions tabled
per sitting day (Total)
1997-9860,765241 252
1998-9937,157149 249
1999-200042,528170 250
2000-0119,49683 234
2001-0241,36686 481

  8.  Ministers and their Parliamentary Clerks are conscious that every effort should be made to provide a Member with a prompt and accurate reply to a written question. The sheer volume of questions that are currently being asked is inhibiting the speed with which answers can be prepared. The Government re-affirm the presumption that any requested information, which is readily available, should be given.[2]

  9.  However, the Government would like to draw the Procedure Committee's attention to possible reforms relating to the timing, notice and classification of written questions. The Government's proposals are intended to improve the efficiency of the system and enhance the ability of departments to provide the requested information as efficiently as possible.


  10.  In the first instance the practice of changing the wording or meaning of a question at late notice can be time-consuming for departments. The Government propose [proposal (1)] that a limit of 24 hours notice from the date of tabling be adopted for a Member to change a question and for the Table Office to inform parliamentary clerks as soon as possible.


  11.  The Leader of the House of Commons in his Memorandum to the Modernisation Committee[3] commented on the restrictions whereby questions can only be answered at certain times. Written and oral questions serve quite different purposes. The Committee might want to look at the extent to which they should be treated differently. Current procedures state that questions can only be answered during the following hours: Monday—Wednesday from 3.30 pm, Thursday from 11.30 am and most recently from 9.35 am on a Friday. The Memorandum suggested these timings should be reviewed.

  12.  The Government believe that the current rules create unnecessary delays and prevent departments from informing the Member and the House as soon as a Minister has approved a reply to a question. The Government believe that questions should be answered from 9.30 am every day of the week. [proposal (2)]


  13.  Named Day Questions are designed to elicit a reply by a set date. Standing Orders state that "a member may indicate a date for answer of a question for written answer" and that "the Minister shall cause an answer to be given to the Member on the date for which notice has been given"[4]. It is in the nature of some issues that MPs will require information promptly and the Government believe that MPs should be able to request information within a short time frame. Indeed, the Government do not query MPs' right to ask questions for answer on a specific date, but it is hard to see any discernible urgency in the majority of these Questions.

  14.  Named Day Questions constitute almost half the total number of Questions asked:
Session96-97 97-9898-99 99-20002000-01
Ordinary Written9,649 29,12018,95020,569 8,654
Named Day8,79023,532 13,19916,2128,062
Named Day questions as % of total 47.744.741.1 4448.8

  15.  The sheer volume of Named Day Questions now being tabled threatens to undermine the system. A previous Leader of the House of Commons noted that "Such indiscriminate use of priority written questions undermines their purpose and may lead to large numbers of holding replies."[5] The Government wish to reiterate this point. Some holding replies are inevitable, but the Government seek to limit their excessive use.

  16.  The tabling of several Named Day questions can put a great burden on departments. The information requested may involve a great deal of effort by officials both within their department and across Whitehall who may be diverted from equally pressing tasks. The indiscriminate use of Named Day questions—on occasion over 50 by one single Member to a single department—for the shortest notice, results in Ministers not being able to respond properly to genuinely urgent questions.

  17.  A previous Procedure Committee report considered, and rejected, a rationing system for written questions. However, the Committee urged greater restraint in the use of such questions, concluding "priority marking should be used sparingly and selectively in particular, the earliest permitted date should be reserved for those questions to which an urgent answer is genuinely required."[6] The Procedure Committee suggested that the excessive use of priority written questions would ultimately be self-correcting, but the figures above demonstrate that this has not occurred.[7]

  18.  The Government urge the Committee to look again at the number and notice period for Named Day questions. Although, there may be a good reason to table a number of Named Day questions on a single day, the Committee may wish to consider a weekly limit for Members. The Government believe that it would be reasonable to place a limit on the number of questions to which an answer is required within five sitting days. We would expect that such restrictions would need to be applied flexibly so as not to undermine an individual Member's ability to question the Executive on serious and urgent issues.

  19.  Members would, of course, retain the ability to ask non-urgent questions with a specified date for reply and the Government believe there should be no limit on this category of questions.

  20.  However, the Government believe that the system would work more efficiently if [proposal (3)] there was a clear, enforceable distinction between Ordinary Written and Named Day questions and for the Committee to draw up rules which could be enforced by the Table Office. In order to improve the way in which departments deal with such questions we would welcome guidance from the Table Office as to the basis on which they accept questions, which require a reply on a Named Day. We hope that the Procedure Committee inquiry will illuminate the criteria currently applied by the Table Office and to outline what problems are caused by the current system (if any).

  21.  We also propose [proposal (4)] that the minimum period for a reply for a named day question is extended from three to four working days. We believe that this will reduce the number of holding answers and allow a fuller response to such questions.


  22.  Parliamentary Questions are also used as a means by which the Government can make written statements. Major policy announcements are made in the Chamber, but it is not practicable for all Government statements to be made on the Floor of the House without unreasonably reducing the time for debate in the Commons. For this reason, many Ministerial announcements will be suitable for written answer.

  23.  However, Ministers' Written statements have to be made with the artificial device of a planted PQ. In his recent Memorandum to the Modernisation Committee, the Leader of the House noted,

        It would be more transparent if there was a separate entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements and a separate entry for their publication in Hansard. This would have the effect of advising Members in advance of a forthcoming written statement and make it more convenient for Members and the press to locate the text.

  24.  The Government propose [proposal (5)] a more transparent and accountable process by having a clear category of "written ministerial statements" which would be notified on the Order Paper and later published in the Official Report.


  25.  Question Time is the most visible way in which MPs can hold Ministers to account. However, the recent report by the Hansard Society Commission[8] showed that MPs do not believe that is a useful way of garnering information. According to their survey only a quarter of MPs thought it was effective. The Government believe that improvements could be made to enhance its topicality and substance.

  26.  The topicality of the issues raised is restricted by the two-week notice period for tabling questions. It is a source of frustration to MPs and the public that many "live" issues do not figure in such parliamentary exchanges. The Memorandum to the Modernisation Committee suggests that the Procedure Committee might examine this matter;

        A prime issue for consideration must be whether the period of notice of two full weeks can be reduced and, if so, by how much? It is plainly in the interests of the House that ministers can be properly briefed, but this should still be possible with a much shorter period of notice, which increased the topicality of the questioning.[9]

  27.  The Government would welcome the Procedure Committee's thoughts on these matters.


  28.  The quotas set for orals questions was revised in 1997. The current allocation is as follows:

Oral Questions slotQuestions tabled (total)
1 hour40
50 Minutes35
45 Minutes30
30 Minutes30
15 Minutes15
10 Minutes10

  29.  The Committee will recognise the great deal of pressure involved in preparing draft replies to oral questions. Whilst it is a judgement for the Speaker to decide on the number of questions and supplementaries to be called during oral questions, the current quotas are unrealistic.

  30.  The Government note that some of the work undertaken for oral questions is unnecessary, especially when a brief has been prepared for a question which is not reached. The Government propose [proposal (6)] that the number of questions tabled for oral reply should be more realistic:
Oral Questions
Questions Tabled (total) Proposed New
1 hour4020
50 Minutes3520
45 minutes3020
30 minutes3020
15 minutes158
10 minutes106

  31.  The current rules on admissibility enable Ministers to give proper answers to questions tabled. Members have opportunities to raise a wide range of related matters in supplementaries. Introducing open questions is likely to result in "bad questions driving out good"; confusion as Ministers may not be able to speak on a range of issues which are the responsibility of a fellow Minister and; question time being reduced further to pure political point scoring.


  32.  There is a tension between the number of questions asked and the quality of discourse during question time. The Government would welcome the Procedure Committee's views on whether a more radical restructuring of oral questions would be desirable.

  33.  Successive Speakers have placed a premium on allowing as many MPs as possible to participate in Question Time. The Government believe that this is absolutely right. Question Time should provide the opportunity for Members from all parties to question Ministers rigorously about Government policy.

  34.  However, the recent reports from the Norton Commission and the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny[10] raised concerns about Question Time's emphasis on "breadth rather than depth". There is a tendency to try and get through as many questions as possible during departmental questions. Whilst the laudable aim is to maximise the number of contributions from the Floor the result is that few issues are examined in much depth. Both reports argue that the current structure encourages MPs to ask questions aimed at cheap point-scoring rather than thorough scrutiny, and suggest that reform should allow each issue to be more thoroughly probed.

  35.  The recommendation of the Norton Report, and echoed in that of the Hansard Society, is to reduce the total number of tabled questions to ten per question time. Under this scheme each subject would be pursued for five to eight minutes, with any MP allowed to ask a supplementary question, provided it falls within the policy area. It is argued that this form of questioning would allow at least as many MPs to speak as at present, but mean more detailed investigation of each policy area. The effect, it is suggested, would to be create a more fruitful dialogue between ministers and MPs.

  36.  Such an innovation will require a significant change to the structure of Question Time. To work, it would require a cultural shift within Parliament and the Speaker would need to be active in ensuring that questions were in order. However, the Government acknowledges the potential benefits: given their advance knowledge of the policy areas to be raised, Ministers and MPs would therefore get more detailed answers to their enquiries. The Government has no fixed view on these options but would very much welcome the results of the Procedure Committee's investigations into the implications of such a change.


  37.  The Government has recently introduced a separate slot for Members to question the Minister for Women on her areas of responsibility and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Government believe that the system is working well but will keep it under review.


  38.  At present there is no minimum notice period for the withdrawal of questions and they can be withdrawn at any time before the question is due to be asked. The text of the withdrawn question is printed in a memorandum at the end of the next issue of the Order Paper.

  39.  The removal of questions at such short notice does not add to the overall efficiency of the system of questions. It can often create unnecessary work and expense for departments with no outcome. In order to cut down on this unused work the Government propose [proposal (7)] that if a Member is unable to attend oral questions, that the question is withdrawn within a week of tabling.


  40.  The Government understand the desire to ensure accountability throughout the year but is not convinced that questions should be tabled during the summer recess. It is unlikely that questions in the recess could be answered as fully or quickly as when the House is sitting. Quite reasonably, Ministers and officials take their holidays to coincide with parliamentary recesses. The Government believe that the effect of such a change would only increase the number of "I will write" letters, indicating a Minister's intention to write with more detail at a future date.

  41.  However, the Government believe that other reforms may alleviate some of the problems associated with the summer recess.

  42.  The Modernisation Committee Memorandum outlines plans for redesigning the parliamentary year and contains specific recommendations for breaking up the long summer recess. The changes, if accepted by the House, would mean the Commons returning in September, before breaking for a short conference recess. MPs would be able to table questions immediately on their return in September and during the three-week conference recess. This would halve the current "barren" period that exists during the long summer recess.


  43.  The Procedure Committee dealt with the issue of "I will write to the hon. Member" in its Fourth Report. It was concerned that some departments did not seem to be aware of the fact that letters sent to Members should be deposited in the Library of the House, where appropriate, or were unaware of the procedures for doing so. The assumption is that such deposit should be normal, unless there are strong reasons, such as the confidentiality of a constituent, against it.

  44.  The previous Leader of the House accepted the recommendation that guidance should be issued to "Government departments on how to implement the existing arrangements for deposit of letters"[11]. This guidance was first issued on 6 October 2000 and has since been re-issued by my office.

  45.  The Committee will wish to be aware that my office have established links with the House of Commons Library to chase on a quarterly basis those departments who have failed to follow up commitments to "I will write". This system is intended to lead to both the Member receiving a reply and for the Library to maintain accurate records.

  46.  In addition, in response to a written Parliamentary Question from Anne McIntosh MP on 15 November 2001 suggesting that questions replied to by letter during recess should be published in the Official Report the next sitting day. My office issued guidance to Parliamentary Clerks setting out the new instructions, which would take effect as of Monday 19 November 2001.

  47.  I believe this meets the spirit of the Procedure Committee recommendation that "a list of letters deposited in the Library should be published at regular intervals—either weekly or monthly—both as a supplement to the Order Paper and at a suitable place in the Official Report"[12]

  48.    I hope that this innovation will assist Members. However, a further change may eliminate the current practice that on the last sitting day of the session, all outstanding questions receive an "I will write" reply. The Government propose [proposal (8)] that at the end of the session, departments should be allowed to answer these questions substantively in the normal way and for the replies to be printed in a special edition of the Official Report in the recess.


  49.  The transfer of a question between departments occurs where responsibility for the subject matter rests with another Minister. The delay created by the transfer, quite understandably, can be frustrating for Members and the Government would like to see the number of transfers reduced.

  50.  The transfer of questions ultimately rests with the Minister of that department through their parliamentary clerk. However, the number of transfers that appear on the Order Paper suggests that a fair proportion are being misallocated. The Government suggest a number of changes below to improve the efficiency of transfers within Whitehall and the provision of information to parliamentary officials. But we would urge, in the first instance, [proposal (9)] that the Table Office make every effort with the Member concerned to accurately allocate Questions to the correct department.

  51.  The Government recognise that changes to the structure of Government since 1997 and the increased number of cross-cutting initiatives may have caused problems of allocation. The Government has endeavoured to inform Parliament and the public of these changes through the List of Ministerial Responsibilities.[13]

  52.  We believe there could be further improvements to the system. The Government therefore propose [proposal (10)] that when there are Machinery of Government changes the Table Office are informed in writing.

  53.  The system could also be improved by "joining-up" systems in Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. The channels for provision of information could be improved through much greater use of the electronic mechanisms now available. The Government propose [proposal (11)] that the information currently contained within the current paper based List of Ministerial Responsibilities and on the Cabinet Office website— should be made available via a searchable database. This database would contain a list of Ministerial Responsibilities and guidance on where issues cut across a number of Government departments and would enable House officials to identify responsibilities more easily. The Government would welcome discussions between the House Authorities and the Executive on how to develop and finance compatible systems.

  54.  The Government acknowledge that the time taken in Whitehall to transfer a question can, in certain cases could be quicker than at present. The Government propose [proposal (12)] that when a question is clearly not the responsibility of a department, it should be transferred within one sitting day from the date it appears on the Order Paper. In an effort to speed this process the Government also propose [proposal (13)] that when a question is being transferred that the current practice of producing two separate letters B one to the Member and one to the Table Office—should cease. One letter, sent to the Member but copied to the Table Office would suffice.

  55.  We hope that by providing information on Ministerial responsibilities in this way, that it will help reduce the number of questions tabled to the wrong department. The Table Office plays a vital part in this, and better information should improve its ability to advise Members properly.

  56.  The Government are keen to ensure that questions are not permitted which are the responsibility of the Devolved administrations. The Government would welcome views from the Committee on whether the current standing orders should be tightened in any way.


  57.  Ultimately it is for the House of Commons to decide on its use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). However, the extent to which Parliament under-utilises the benefits of ICT is a cause of concern for many Members. The Leader of the House has received much correspondence for Members suggesting greater use of e-mail and other electronic devices to improve the transmission of information.

  58.  The issue, which has generated the most comment, is Members' inability to table questions other than by hand. Numerous MPs have requested the opportunity to e-mail questions to the Table Office. The Government can see merit in this proposal. We acknowledge that the change may have implications for the current methods of work within the Table Office, which the Procedure Committee will want to examine. The Government would welcome the Procedure Committee's findings in this area.

  59.  The Stationery Office provide an extremely useful service, of notifying departments by e-mail by 5.00am a list of questions which have been tabled overnight. The use of an electronic system by Parliament would allow earlier notice of both questions and EDMs. The benefit for Parliamentary Clerks and indeed Members would be great. Draft replies could be commissioned more speedily, potentially allowing a higher number of questions to be answered on time.

  60.  In addition to the electronic delivery of questions, the Government can also see huge benefits in the electronic delivery of questions to Members, the Official Report, the Library, the Table Office and the Press Gallery and again would welcome a view from the Committee on this.

  61.  The Government look forward with interest to the outcome of the Procedure Committee's report into Ministerial correspondence[14] that "We support the principle of electronic publication of this material [the text of Ministerial letters to be routinely supplied to the Library in electronic form]. We look to the Information Committee to consider such a proposal, and that the Library should explore with Government departments the feasibility of receiving the text of replies electronically".

14 February 2002

1   Estimate provided by HM Treasury using current prices. The precise estimate is £31,625,658. Back

2   Public Administration Select Committee; Select Report of Session 2000-01, Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions (HC 61), para 19. Back

3   HC 440, published 12 December 2001. Back

4   Standing Orders of the House of Commons: Public Business, Standing Order 22, paras 3, 4. Back

5   Third Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1990-91, Ev. P.27. Back

6   HC 178 (1990-91), para 72. Back

7   ibid. Back

8   Hansard Report "The Challenge to Parliament: Making Government Accountable".NOTICE PERIOD FOR QUESTIONS Back

9   HC440, 12 December 2001. Back

10   Commission on Strengthening Parliament, chaired by Lord Norton, (2000), Strengthening Parliament; Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny, (2001), The Challenge for Parliament, London: Hansard Society/Vacher Dod. Back

11   HC 734 (1999-2000), Letters sent by Minsisters following Undertakings in Debate. Back

12   Para 13, HC 734 (1999-2000). Back

13   Cabinet Office, published July 2001. Back

14   House of Commons Sessional Returns Data to 29 January 2002. Supplied by the Table Office ibid Number of sitting days to Tuesday 29 January inclusive. HC 734 (1999-2000). Back

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